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by Stacy Baca
“That woman never sleeps!” says Mary Beth Hall of Robin Roberts who, like many celebrities of late, has publicly discussed her struggle with breast cancer and taken an active role in promoting awareness and advocating for a cure. Roberts, ABC’s Good Morning America anchor, announced her diagnosis on the morning show in 2007, roughly coinciding with Mary Beth’s own diagnosis. It was Mary Beth’s mother-in-law who kept her informed of Roberts’ journey as Mary Beth began her own. “Breast cancer equals fear; we all know that,” says Mary Beth, and Roberts “let her fear show.” Connecting with Roberts’ authenticity, forthright style, and lack of shame, Mary Beth came to see Roberts as a voice, one of many celebrity voices, who are saying “yes” to speaking out about breast cancer.
More recently, Giuliana Rancic, television personality and reality star, is another in the list of celebrities to say, “Yes.” She and this long list of women — aside from their shared fame — vary from one another in nearly every way: Wanda Sykes, Suzanne Somers, Nancy Reagan, Diahann Carroll, Betsy Johnson, Sandra Day O’Connor, Olivia Newton John, Peggy Fleming, Christina Applegate, Hoda Kotbe, Sheryl Crow, Edie Falco, Kylie Minogue, Gloria Steinem, Elizabeth Edwards, Cynthia Nixon, and more, not to mention those not in the limelight. With increasing exposure and instant access to information and opinions through social media, the internet, mobile applications, and video streaming it seems that celebrity stories like Rancic’s, who, along with her husband, shared her decision to have a double mastectomy, will be heard more and more and will be harder and harder to ignore.
But how important is it to us to hear celebrities’ tales? What is it that makes us connect with public individuals or not? And what good, if any, comes from celebrities speaking their truth?
Truth and Experience
Serendipitously, as breast cancer steered Mary Beth’s life down a course she could not have imagined, she had the opportunity to meet Roberts. “We talked about our cancers, about hair growing back, and about how it (breast cancer) changes us for life.” And change her life it did. Mary Beth found herself giving voice to breast cancer and simultaneously fulfilling her dream of writing by penning her experience in a witty and inspirational book, Lessons from a Bald Chick, How to Help Yourself or Someone you Know Through Cancer. Just as Roberts spoke candidly in magazines, on television, at events, and championed Ford Warriors in Pink, Mary Beth also found herself in similar situations with people listening to what she had to say. Her passion for writing flowed through her breast cancer story and her unique perspective soon launched the book into international publication. Mary Beth began juggling her career and speaking engagements, gathering energy from survivors at events as small as 5 and to groups as large as 1,000. She went on to create The Bald Chick Ministry, donating book proceeds to help women touched with breast cancer, launching herself into the public eye, and yielding to what she terms “the action call:” the call so many women with breast cancer feel, not just celebrities.
“Every story is important,” says Mary Beth, who admits she hadn’t really thought much about the impact of celebrity on breast cancer but when asked, decided, “It’s even more important for celebrities to speak out because we tend to gravitate toward them. They have a responsibility for it to not be all about them; (rather) they are a greater voice.” She believes that celebrity has the power to create awareness and action.
And research does agree. Studies published in Australia (1), (2) found a significant increase in mammography bookings after Kylie Minogue, the pop singer, publicly discussed her diagnosis and treatment. And, in America, several studies were conducted (3),(4),(5), showing correlations between Nancy Reagan’s 1987 breast cancer announcement and increases in breast conserving surgery and mammography.
Clearly, more research is needed and many factors, according to the American Journal of Public Health (3), impact health action such as: “perceived benefit of an action, barriers to taking an action, and intensity and duration of the media cue.” Encouragingly, though, there does seem to be evidence that celebrity-shared experiences do, although perhaps temporarily, have a role in motivating action. Further, the research may serve as an impetus for integrating celebrity experiences into prevention and treatment awareness programs.
Telling a personal story with the hope of it inspiring others to action is a heavy responsibility for any one person, famous or not. Not any single person can be all things to all people, this is true. Nor can any one person hold all of the answers. Still, we connect to different people, including those of the famous lot, for different reasons. We may look to a single celebrity, like Sheryl Crow, to bring an inspirational story of strength. Wanda Sykes may make us laugh. We may relate to someone based on their similar stage in their life, or out of a respect for their work or position.
Yet these same public personas that speak to the core of our sisters, mothers, or friends may make our own blood boil. Sykes may have one of us rolling on the floor in stitches while someone else, like Mary Beth Hall, may find the fact that Sykes underwent a double mastectomy while diagnosed with Stage 0 cancer confusing, an option that many everyday women are not afforded. Suzanne Somers’ discussion about alternative treatments may encourage one person to speak to her doctors about treatment options while Somers’ non-professional personal opinions may strike another as irresponsible and dangerous. Elizabeth Edwards might encourage personal strength in one but may leave another longing for deeper meaning. You may even, guiltily, find yourself crying out, “Too much Rancic, already!” It’s unclear what makes a person connect to another. Yet, what is unmistakably clear is when someone does strike our souls and resonate with our own, deeply personal stories.
Patient Experience versus Prescription
However these public people affect you, inspire you to act, reveal wisdom, information, or not, celebrities are patients, just like us — and patients have valuable experiences to share. Patients share experiences and information that differ from that shared by MDs, but are valuable nonetheless. The Journal of Medical Internet Research (6) states in a research study of the personal side of health, “Patient expertise focused on strategies for coping with day-to-day personal health issues gained through trial and error of the lived experience… It offered a wealth of actionable advice that was frequently expressed through the narrative style of personal stories about managing responsibilities and activities associated with family, friends, work, and the home during illness. In contrast, clinician expertise was carried through a prescriptive style and focused on explicit facts and opinions that tied closely to the health care delivery system, biomedical research, and health professionals’ work.” Thus, fellow patients communicate “valuable personal information that clinicians cannot necessarily provide.”
What remains true for us all is that we gain strength, information, and inspiration not from a single source, person, or community but a myriad of experts, personalities and resources. Each relevant. Each meaningful. Each advancing our journey in even a small way. Celebrities are individuals many people “know” in common and can be part of gleaning valuable insight from an otherwise difficult situation, a situation that Mary Beth Hall says gave her strength of character she may not have otherwise realized. Whether the choice is to listen to the voice of a famous actress, musician, or athlete, to speak your own story of survival, or to give a nod to a particular celebrity whose experience echoes your own, let’s be grateful to the diverse group of people, both everyday heroes and known celebrities, who inspire us to answer the universal, yet individually unique, action call.
(1.) Chapman S, McLeod K, Wakefield M, Holding S. Impact of news of celebrity illness on breast cancer screening: Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer diagnosis. Med J Aust. 2005;183:247–50.
(2.) Chapman S, McLeod K, Wakefield M, Holding S. Impact of news of celebrity illness on breast cancer screening: Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer diagnosis. Med J Aust. 2005;183:247–250.
(3.) Lane DS, Polednak AP, Burg MA. The impact of media coverage of Nancy Reagan’s experience on breast cancer screening. Am J Public Health. 1989;79:1551–2.
(4.) Smith SW, Nazione S, LaPlante C, Kotowski MR, Atkin C, Skubisz CM, Stohl C. Topics and sources of memorable breast cancer messages and their impact on prevention and detection behaviors. Journal of Health Communication. 2009;14:293–307.
(5.) Du X, Freeman DH, Jr, Syblik DA. What drove changes in the use of breast conserving surgery since the early 1980s? The role of the clinical trial, celebrity action and an NIH consensus statement. Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2000;62:71–79
(6.) J Med Internet Res. 2011 Aug 16;13(3):e62. Managing the personal side of health: how patient expertise differs from the expertise of clinicians. Hartzler A, Pratt W.
Stacy Baca, OTR/L is a health and wellness writer who has combined her 17 years of experience as an occupational therapist with her talent for writing, to serve various communities and publications.